Imagine you have been through the ordeal of a lengthy trial and are now sitting in prison. Now imagine the prison is a maximum-security facility, which simply means that you only get to go outside for an hour per week and leave your cell only for showers—meals are brought to you. The only company you have comes from the other inmates in cells beside you, whom you cannot see, but only hear if the speech is loud enough. Now imagine that if you get too loud, the guards will come in and tell you to be quiet or else face solitary—as if your situation is not solitary enough. You become quiet though, for you know that solitary IS worse—you won’t get to go outside for at least a month, nor shower, nor hear another living soul during that entire time and often, the lights are kept out (Foster, 2006). Now imagine that one day leads to another and before you know it, you have heard news that your mother has died, your children have grown, graduated High School, and you now have grandchildren who may be nearly grown before you get out. Now imagine that you are innocent (Cohen, 2013).
This was the situation of David Ranta who just two days ago was finally exonerated of a murder he did not commit and released, tasting freedom for the first time in 23 years. Justice is finally served. He has missed much of what is important in life because the NYC Prosecutor’s Office and Police yielded to community pressure to find the person guilty of the murder of one of their most prominent citizens. So because Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger had his life wrongfully taken from him, someone had to pay—even if it was the wrong someone (Powell, 2013).
Understanding Law and Justice in NYC
New York City is known for its get-tough stance on crime and rightfully so. In a city with thousands of homicides each year, a nearly equal number of rapes, far more property crimes than can be imagined, and serious drug-related gang crime, the city does have a tough job. Leading the Prosecutors Office for many years has been Barry Schreiber, “a master of the courtroom,” according to former ADA now minister Stan Irvin. Irvin further added that Schreiber,
“was one of the two most skilled, effective courtroom trial attorneys I had ever seen (the other being Bobby Lee Cook.) Gifted with a brilliant legal mind which could cut to the quick of the issues in each upcoming trial, blessed with a silk tongue in front of a jury, able to move and touch each jury he talked with, and the very face of honesty and integrity” (Irvin, 2009).
In considering the evidence which was presented in the finding that David Ranta was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Rabbi Werzberger, one cannot help but wonder how much of Barry Schreiber’s success has been a result of “honesty and integrity” and how much the result of sanctioned police misconduct?
In this particular criminal justice case, virtually every witness has since recanted on their testimony stating that they were coached by Detective Louis Scarcella and Detective Stephen Chmill. One, a convicted rapist, testified in the new trial that he was told who to identify in the police line-up in exchange for a lighter sentence deal. Such a deal could only come from the prosecutor’s office and given the enormous pressure the public was placing on that office, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Prosecutor knew of the fraud.
Of course, such things occur far too often in the criminal justice system today, which is the only reason to believe that it could be the case here. Now, to be fair, that is bias or a form of bigotry, but when the evidence is mounting nationwide that prosecutors with great records get those records through such means, it is difficult not to look sideways at a successful prosecutor. But really, why would a prosecutor, any prosecutor, go to such lengths just to get a conviction?
Put plainly, prosecutors are seldom held accountable for their “mistakes,” which land innocent persons in prison, sometimes for life and sometimes with the death penalty. Even when a prosecutor makes a clear “mistake,” all he or she receives is a reprimand, if that. And a prosecutor with a great record of convictions, regardless of the damage to innocent persons, is rewarded by being re-elected. Thus, there is no incentive to avoid “errors” and every incentive to break the rules.
The Innocent Project – Working to Correct Errors of Justice in Law
To date, the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization begun in New York City for the purpose of examining cases where it appears that the innocent have been wrongly convicted, has racked up quite an impressive case against prosecutors nationwide. For instance, since 1989, the Innocent Project has managed to get 303 innocent persons released through DNA evidence alone. In their findings since that time, the top reasons for wrongful convictions are,
- Incorrect Eyewitness Testimony(accounting for 72% of all errors).
2. Invalidated or Improper Forensic Science(played a role in 50% of all “errors”)
3. False confessions and Incriminating Statements (in 25% of the cases)
4. Informants (in 18% of the cases).
Source: The Innocence Project
Now think about those numbers. Add them up and the total is 165% and this does not count the other “errors” that make up smaller shares of the problem. To get a better understanding of these numbers, let’s look for a moment to another industry.
Insurance companies have a standard by which they investigate accidents. When determining whether an “accident” was really an accident or in reality the cause of the driver (they use this for internal quotation ratios), an accident is determined by a single flaw, such as a tire blowout for no apparent reason. The tire was new, did not have a nail already in it and simply failed at a moment when loss of control of the vehicle was most likely—it happens. But they consider a driver operating on a tire that is under inflated or badly worn as the cause of the “accident.” They do not usually present this except in lawsuits, but they recognize that true accidents are caused by factors beyond the operator’s control and these are generally isolated to a single factor. Any time they find more than a single factor in the “accident,” the insurance companies understand that human error is really to blame. This human error could be foolish negligence or willful neglect.
Now look back at those figures. 165% indicates that in at least 65% of all cases of wrongful conviction, human error was at play. Then, when we consider exactly the reasons such as false confessions, improper forensics, and informants cutting deals for testimony, the matter no longer appears to be negligence, but rather wilful misconduct.
Now return to David Ranta’s case
One investigator into the case stated that Detective’s Scarcella and Chmil let two criminals out of jail long enough to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes if they would testify against Ranta. So that’s a false confession and wilful misconduct by police. The rapist who received a lighter sentence to point him out of the Line-up after coaching—more wilful misconduct. Still other witnesses testified they had lied after being instructed by the detectives—more misconduct. In addition, this is false eyewitness testimony and hence, there are at least two factors associated with this “accident” of justice. In other words, this was no accident.
At a bare minimum, there is clear police misconduct and there is the indication of the involvement of the Prosecutor in the case, though proving this is unlikely.
Also at a bare minimum, David Ranta is again fighting for his life—this time from a hospital bed where he is scheduled to undergo another operation having had one already. Kudos to his attorney, Pierre Sussman, who managed to help this innocent man taste freedom—not just from his cell, but also from the stigma that the NYPD placed on him 23 years ago. Unfortunately, the stress associated with the joy of the moment was more than he could handle. Let’s hope that he can win this battle.
As a final note, we should all take a serious look not only at this case of injustice but at our own local Prosecutor’s Offices. One thing to look at is the conviction record. If it is extraordinary, it is extra-ordinary and there is likely some backdoor dealing going on. According to the Prison Legal News, crime labs are churning out junk science at an alarming rate, mostly as a result of pressure from Prosecutors. In a lengthy article detailing scores of cases nationwide, the facts related to this supposedly excellent technique for building cases in criminal justice present us with one conclusion (Clarke, 2013). The unfortunate reality is that we will never have justice while the criminals are the ones with the law behind them. If we learn anything from the case of David Ranta, it should be that.
Clarke, M. (23Mar2013). Crime Labs in Crisis: Shoddy Forensics Used to Secure Convictions. PrisonLegalNews.org. Retrieved from: https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/displayArticle.aspx?articleid=22698&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
Cohen, A. (20Mar2013). Man Convicted of Killing Satmar Rabbi May Be Released This Week. The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved From: http://forward.com/articles/173427/man-convicted-of-killing-satmar-rabbi-may-be-relea/
Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Prentis-Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Innocence Project. (2013). Facts on Post-Conviction DNA Exonerations. Retrieved from: http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Facts_on_PostConviction_DNA_Exonerations.php
Irvin, S. (15Apr2009). The Honor of a Prosecutor. Cross-Wise with Stan. Retrieved from: http://cross-wisewithstan.blogspot.com/
Powell, M. (23Mar2013). Just Freed, Cleared Man Has a Heart Attack. The NY Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/nyregion/man-freed-from-prison-has-a-heart-attack.html?ref=nyregion&_r=0